Thursday 31 March 2022

A Bridgerton Too Far.

Historical Fantasy: It is surely no accident that Bridgerton’s executive producer is Shonda Rhimes, the guiding intelligence behind that other big Netflix hit Inventing Anna. Rhimes just “gets” the millennial zeitgeist. History is what you make up – what you can make people believe. How? By presenting an historically blank generation with “realities” they want to believe in.

BRIDGERTON has proved to be one of Netflix’s most popular productions. Its peculiar combination of history, the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, and identity politics, has captured a substantial chunk of younger Netflix viewers.

How much these younger viewers actually know about the society, economy and politics of Regency England is uncertain – although “not much” would be a pretty safe bet. Nor can we be certain about how much their understanding of the period has been distorted by Bridgerton – but, on this question, “a whole lot” would probably be the correct answer.

So, what is wrong with Bridgerton? Why are these questions about history and its distortion so important?

Bluntly, the problem with Bridgerton is that it presents Regency England (1811-1820) as a nation in which racial diversity is evident everywhere. All the way from the poorest layers of society to the upper reaches of the English aristocracy, persons of African and Indian heritage are an integral part of their respective communities. Sadly, this presentation of England’s past is not only false, it is also dangerous.

If there really had been Black duchesses in Regency England, then our present-day reality would be entirely different. In fact, the creative and political impulses behind Bridgerton , if absorbed uncritically, must render any useful understanding of contemporary racism an impossibility.

When confronted with these criticisms, the creator of Bridgerton , Chris Van Dusen, responded that the drama “is a reimagined world, we’re not a history lesson, it’s not a documentary. What we’re really doing with the show is marrying history and fantasy in what I think is a very exciting way. One approach that we took to that is our approach to race”.

In spite of Van Dusen’s denials, Bridgerton’s narrative appears to be based on the assumption that “colour-blind casting” – the assigning of dramatic roles without reference to the actors’ skin colour – produces an entirely positive set of progressive outcomes.

Colour-blind casting means that the discriminatory impact of elevating historical accuracy above equal opportunity is overcome. Henceforth, every role is open to every performer. This requires the audience to “look through” an actor’s skin colour and concentrate instead on the quality of their performance. Ideally, the jarring effect of assigning culturally significant “white” roles to people of colour also requires the audience to confront and examine their own racist assumptions and expectations.

If an actor of Indian heritage is cast as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, or a black actress is given the role of Queen Anne Boleyn, and you’re outraged, then what does that say about you? The answer, of course, is that your outrage represents an unmistakable manifestation of deep-seated racism. Colour-blind casting isn’t the problem – you are.

Except that anyone with even the most tenuous grasp of their historical heritage knows full well that no one from the Indian sub-continent could possibly have had the luck of Dickens’ David Copperfield. England in 1840 just wasn’t that sort of place. They’d also know that there was absolutely no way a king of England – even one as willful as Henry VIII – would have been permitted to marry a “Moor”. To cast Black actors in these roles is a gross distortion of the past. A distortion undertaken in the misguided hope of ameliorating the racism of the present.

To understand the racism embedded in contemporary European societies and their colonial offshoots it is necessary to understand the historical conditions out of which the sickness arose. That understanding would be greatly assisted if the source of the extraordinary wealth on display in Bridgerton : the grand estates and magnificent mansions; the glittering jewels and ball-gowns; the legions of servants; the great crowds of hangers-on; was accurately depicted as the fruits of the extraordinary profits of the sugar islands of the West Indies and the hundreds-of-thousands of slaves that were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to work in the (very white) aristocrats’ obscenely lucrative plantations.

The Prince Regent (after whom the Regency period is named) was, of course, the son of the King George III. It was his father who “lost” the thirteen rebellious colonies that became the United States of America. How helpful it would be, therefore, to produce a Netflix drama series whose leading characters hailed from both the slave-owning cotton producers of the American south and the cotton-mill-owners of the English north. How easy it would be then to expose how the chattel slavery that made America also made English capitalism. How Uncle Tom’s slave-cabin and England’s dark satanic mills were always bound together by unbreakable sinews of tortured human flesh.

Ah, but would such a truthful depiction of the past rate? Do the sort of people who watch Netflix really want to be shown the ways in which the horrors of the past drove sharp shards of misery deep into the West’s cultural soul. A truthful Bridgerton would explain the European people’s desperate need to erase the past. Episode by episode, it would depict the inevitable psychological projection of their worst impulses on to their victims: the relentless construction of the racial “other”.

But that would be a Bridgerton too far. And besides, who the hell would watch it?

It is surely no accident that Bridgerton ’s executive producer is Shonda Rhimes, the guiding intelligence behind that other big Netflix hit Inventing Anna. Rhimes just “gets” the millennial zeitgeist. History is what you make up – what you can make people believe. How? As easily as the real Anna Sorokin created the fabulous “Anna Divey”; or, by conjuring up the fantasy of a racially diverse Regency. You present an historically blank generation with “realities” they want to believe in.

An impossibly cool German heiress.

A world without racism.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 31 March 2022.


David George said...

A few years ago the wokies were having a tanty because Jamie Oliver was cooking gumbo - what has happened to the deadly sin of cultural appropriation.

You can't help but notice that, quite suddenly, most of the couples on TV ads are now mixed race. A bit strange but, more importantly, who or what triggered or engineered the change. Did all the ad agencies (and their clients?) get together one day and decide. Probably not, but you get the uncomfortable realisation you're being manipulated; by who or to what end I've no idea.

I don't generally watch TV (The Chase and Country Calendar about the extent of it) but caught part of TV1's Sunday programme recently. Couldn't help but notice the almost continuous use of background music to, presumably, add a more subliminal aspect to the partisan script. We're kind of used to expect that sort of thing from commercial advertising but when a so called news and current affairs outfit obviously believe their mission is to propagandise rather than inform they shouldn't be trusted - or be protected and supported by the taxpayer.

Generating a positive or negative emotion actually creates a change in our nervous system, the embedding of a physical reaction, the goal of propaganda and advertising. Very creepy when you think about it that way.

Max Ritchie said...

This fantasising would reach its nadir when someone casts Anthony Hopkins as Martin Luther King. That might just draw attention to how silly it is. These programmes don’t need to be documentaries but they do need to be plausible. Al Pacino was a wonderful Shylock but he’d be a hopeless Muhammad Ali.

Phil said...

The show briefly touches on the black boxing fraternity which would be worthy of a TV show in itself. The likes of Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond fought their way out of US slave plantations and made their way to London and became celebrity prize fighters. Bill Richmond became a wealthy boxing trainer of aristocratic young men. More interesting to focus on real black stories but they are ignored.

DS said...

If one could get the racial literalism out of one's head (a questionable literalism at that), I would suggest that the notion of mixed-race Regency England actually works to highlight the real problems of the era: Class and Religion.

Recall that the fundamental difference between British aristocrats and their American equivalent is that the British would rather associate with the Indian son of a Maharajah than the son of a white janitor. The Americans would prefer it the other way round. In short, in the England of the era, Class dominated. Hell, we even get it as a joke in Blackadder, where Edmund notes that the Mongolian leader went to Eton... the elites of the world recognised each other across racial boundaries.

And that's before touching religion. An Anglican non-white versus a white Catholic?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Conservies regularly have tanties about just about everything, particularly about seeing brown people in advertisements if my memory serves. And most of all about a few Maori words on radio and television – because it's "being forced down our throats" or – because "nobody asked us". I notice nobody complains about the deaf person that stands next to the Prime Minister and signs on television. That's an official language too. :) Conservies seem to be permanently angry over minor shit that most people couldn't be bothered with. But hey ho, it's your blood pressure.

Perhaps the ad agencies and their clients decided that they would make more money by being inclusive and having brown people in ads, then if they simply had white people in them all the time as they used to. They probably did the research. Their purpose is to make money after all. What with use supporting forcing companies to accept speech that loses them money, and getting angry at brown faces, you're beginning to sound much like a communist to me David.

AB said...

Chis, in broad terms I think you're right - and that in general we can see such reinventions of history as anti-progressive in that they locate evil in 'bad' (racist, sexist, etc.) individuals rather than in political and economic ideologies and structures.

But a thought occurred - about a year ago I saw a school production of 'The Tempest', one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Prospero and some others were played by girls - and very well too. And obviously it was done out of necessity to fill all the roles. So far so good. But in some places the verse was altered accordingly. Prospero's great line about Gonzalo's redemptive moment:
"His tears run down his beard / like winter's drops from eaves of reeds"
was butchered into:
"Her tears run down her face / like winter's drops from eaves of reeds"
losing both the musicality and the visual image evoked in the original.
But did it really matter? In the end I had to realise that I was being something of a purist old fool and it didn't matter. I think this is a trap we can fall into with cultural matters.

The Barron said...

Many years ago they were filming 'The Nativity Story' in Otago. My mate's kids applied to be extras. Their father Maori, their mother generationally of Lebanese decent. They did not get the gig, they obviously did not look the part, yet probably had the most direct heritage to the Levant. Biblical epics have always had the problem of Europeanizing south east Asia.

While Philippe Sella was the Prince of Centres, it was actually Frank Bunce that had the royal decent through the Rex family of Niue. Indeed, if you wanted authenticity in the casting of the regency Aristocracy, Niue would be a casting paradise. Of course, we are talking about what we see as physical representation noticeably in skin colour, not heritage. This becomes complex.

Most Afro-American slaves came from west Africa, while Congo and Mozambique also provided high numbers. This was not a barrier in the casting of Mandela or Biko, despite genetic variation in Africa being the highest on Earth. No nuance in casting in African set movies. Cliff Curtis is famously cast as 'the other' in the States, returning to NZ for lower budget movies to reinforce his Maoritanga.

I would hope any NZ school casting of Hamlet goes to the best actor in the school not the most Danish looking. Similarly, I hope any casting of Othello is colour neutral and without makeup.

Britain has looked at the roles available for actors of colour, and decided to to limit many of the historical roles. I have no problem with this. I can overlook Anne Boylan or David Copperfield having actors of colour reasonably quickly. Acting is just that. You assume a role and your skills sell it.

Bridgerton is something else. It uses colour neutrality as part of sell of Regency England. Chris is right to note the enormous money from the slave trade and slavery itself in building the wealth that is glorified. The cruelties of the East India company was the other primary source of wealth. The White Mughals (giving us the term Mogul), with the new money plundered from war and enforced poverty in the subcontinent. Regency England was built on blood, exploitation, racism and rape. The Duke of Clarence, later William IV (on who's behalf the Northern Declaration of Independence was signed by Busby)led the pro-slavery lobby. The possible William V just got a reminder in the Caribbean that it is not assigned to history.

Colour blind casting is something I support in many productions. Bridgerton is not one of them. It is difficult to see how the depth of racism in the Aristocracy can be portrayed when the casting hides it. It is a society where wealth was built on the destruction of non-European societies. Rather than to neutralize racism, it is used to cover it up. Of course, Bridgeton without colour neutral casting would also be problematic as to the true nature of the society it glorifies.

greywarbler said...

That's the sort of thing I notice on tv DG. Also the bright juvenile colourbook shades. But particularly I was disgusted with the blatant shouting ads from Harvey Norman. But in a way they are the best, straightforward, say the message, not soft-sell, psychological manipulation.

Anti-Digby said...

Well, we now have a world in which wealthy, entitled, privileged people of colour can call the poor and the wretched, people one step away from homelessness, "supremacist" and feel they are doing "activism".

Art reflects the time in which it is made.

The total lack of self-awareness evident in this production mimics the total lack of self-awareness of the liberal classes watching and enjoying it.

Anonymous said...

What would Iannucci say?.

David George said...

Here's a great wee essay, in the form of a book review, that gives a glimpse into the motivations of pompous twats like this Chris Van Dusen.

"And, of course, there are some very significant aspects of ‘black culture’ that the essentialisers ignore. Primarily, faith. ‘A key aspect of NeoOrientalism is its failure to appreciate the significance of religion – particularly Christianity – to so many black and brown people in Britain and the USA’, says Swift. He mentions Beyonce, a firm believer in God (and marriage, too – ‘If you liked it, you should have put a ring on it’). Yet identitarians who worship her ignore this fact. This is a killer observation from Swift: ‘Given how much of the politico-cultural identity of young NeoOrientalist women – from their acrylic nails to their “Slay Queen!” social-media patter and their “Educate Yourself!” BLM posts – is appropriated hook, line and sinker from African-American culture, it is curious they ignore arguably the most important aspect of that culture.’

Swift’s issue with NeoOrientalism is that it is fundamentally anti-left, if we take ‘left’ to mean what it used to mean – working people making common cause to demand better pay and conditions and greater say-so in the organisation of both their workplaces and society. NeoOrientalism ‘undermines universalism, solidarity and comradeship’, he says. This is the thread that runs through the book: how ‘wokeness’, or whatever we’re meant to call it, grates against an older politics which held precisely that what we share in common is more important than the petty issues of pigmentation, sex, sexual desire and faith that appear to separate us."

David George said...

Well said Anti-Digby.

Perhaps a lack of awareness of anything beyond the self, the vanity of human certainty, that is the problem. I came across this lovely essay from Paul Kingsnorth:

"Out in the world, the rebellion against God has become a rebellion against everything: roots, culture, community, families, biology itself. Machine progress—the triumph of the Nietzschean will—­dissolves the glue that once held us. Fires are set around the supporting pillars of the culture by those charged with guarding it, urged on by an ascendant faction determined to erase the past, abuse their ancestors, and dynamite their cultural ­inheritance, the better to build their earthly paradise on terra ­nullius. Massing against them are the new ­Defenders of the West, some calling for a return to the atomized liberalism that got us here in the first place, others defending a remnant Christendom that seems to have precious little to do with Christ and forgets Christopher Lasch’s warning that “God, not culture, is the only appropriate object of unconditional reverence and wonder.” Two profane visions going head-to-head, when what we are surely crying out for is the only thing that can heal us: a return to the sacred center around which any real culture is built.

In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over ­humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine. We have always been ­offered the same choice. The gate is strait and the way is narrow and maybe we will always fail to walk it. But is there any other road that leads home? "

sumsuch said...

The tragedy of these times is both the right Left and the wrong Right have no time for things that don't please them. You never have to see anything that displeases you -- which is the furtherest from reality. See 'Amerika'.

Strange our local Right can't digest 'Amerika'. Can't trust them wholely, though they are still mostly harmless, if they can't make an intellectual case about Republican and Ozzy Liberals's beliefs. From what I've learnt truth must come first above all.

The Barron said...

The American Evangelism dominating the Republican right have obstructed environmental initiatives based on the biblical promise of Man's domination over nature. This clearly contrasts with other Christian denominations which coalesce with Maori and Pasifika manakitanga with nature.

We should also note that many influential Evangelist teaching truly believe apocalyptic is due very soon. If the world has no future, why look after it? This has also led to many embracing Putin (old Pat Robertson only has a few years to hope for the end of days before the end of his).

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Barron– There are a number of rather specious reasons why Christian Dominionists don't believe we should look after nature. Prominent among them is the idea that God won't let bad things happen. And of course as you say, there is always the "rapture". Personally it can't come soon enough for me – it will be nice to be without them.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Here's part of a lovely essay by Adam Lee pointing out the problems we have with the twats who facilitate attacks on democracy by the extreme right.

"When people are consumed with fear, they turn inward. They refuse to share what they have. They become small-minded, suspicious and hostile, perceiving enemies where there are none. They fall under the sway of demagogues who promise protection.

These are the opposite of the qualities we need to mend the world. In a climate of rage and suspicion, we need a renewed spirit of goodwill and trust. In the face of soaring inequality, we need those with the most to share with those who have the least. To overcome big, pervasive problems like climate change, we need to rediscover cooperation and the knowledge that we’re all in this together. Lastly, we need a rededication to democracy—real democracy, in which everyone has a voice and everyone’s voice counts the same—which is vital to solving every other problem."

Go over and look at the comments on any MSN news story, particularly about Maori, and you see the New Zealand version of those scared and angry people. Some of them want Winston in charge. Our somewhat white bread version of a demagogue. I just hope they comment out of proportion to their numbers .:)

Chris prudence said...

Downton Abbey was very white.

John Hurley said...

If an actor of Indian heritage is cast as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, or a black actress is given the role of Queen Anne Boleyn, and you’re outraged, then what does that say about you? The answer, of course, is that your outrage represents an unmistakable manifestation of deep-seated racism. Colour-blind casting isn’t the problem – you are.

 The Barron said...
Biblical epics have always had the problem of Europeanizing south east Asia.
Christchurch Cathedral has a Maori Jesus.
If an actor of Indian heritage is cast as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, or a black actress is given the role of Queen Anne Boleyn, and you’re outraged, then what does that say about you? The answer, of course, is that your outrage represents an unmistakable manifestation of deep-seated racism. Colour-blind casting isn’t the problem – you are.

You remind me of Sunday School: there was a picture with Jesus; the lion and tastie lamb.

Underlying contemporary Wokeness is the fundamental question “who is us?”.
As I argued some years back on Public Address it wouldn’t matter if it was a level playing field but it isn’t.
Racism is your only argument.
To quote:

Baizuo as viewed through the eye of the other:

The question has received more than 400 answers from Zhihu users, which include some of the most representative perceptions of the 'white left'. Although the emphasis varies, baizuo is used generally to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”;[ they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”]; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”.  

It reminds me of youth who were Men and boys: the boys had “never had a F..” and this is typical of the elite who grew up post WW2. They knew everything but experienced nothing

The new generation of NZrs Norman Corwin reffered to were the Phil Goffs and Helen Clark whose legacy is language very much like that spoken by Catherine Delahunty.